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Steve Pikiell contract extension sends clear message on Rutgers’ commitment to basketball

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Stability is key to building a long term winner and this move brings just that to a program not accustomed to having it.

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Rutgers v Wisconsin Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Keith Sargeant of NJ Advance Media had first reported earlier this week that Rutgers men’s basketball head coach Steve Pikiell was set to receive a two-year contract extension, pending approval from the Board of Governors. It was made official on Friday afternoon and his contract runs through the 2025-2026 season. His guaranteed compensation is $20 million, plus performance and retention bonuses.

The annual salary breakdown is as follows:

2019-20: $1.7 million

2020-21: $2.2 million

2021-22: $2.6 million

2022-23: $3 million

2023-24: $3.25 million

2024-25: $3.5 million

2025-26: $3.75 million

Pikiell’s current salary of $1.7 million ranks 10th out of 14 Big Ten coaches this season, as well as 46th nationally. His highest payout of $3.75 million in the 2025-2026 season is still below Greg Schiano’s $4 million annual contract for each of the next 8 years.

The real key to the extension is the increase of the buyout that was set to reduce to $3 million after this season. Per the terms reported by Sargeant here, the buyout has reset to $5 million and will lower by $1 million each year during the life of the contract. The $5 million buyout was what current Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes had in his contract last offseason when UCLA decided to pass on his candidacy due to that amount.

The buyout also will reduce by half if athletic director Pat Hobbs left before the end of Pikiell’s contract, something that was included in the original contract and remains. With the multiple investigations and recent tension caused from the football coaching search, Hobbs long term future may be evaluated by new President Jonathan Holloway at some point.

Some are wondering why this decision was made now, especially as Rutgers is teetering towards the bubble after having a solid position to make the NCAA Tournament a month ago. It’s fair to wonder if another extension one year after the previous one is necessary. For an athletic department historically in the red financially and owing money to multiple former coaches that didn’t work out, scrutiny is par for the course.

Hobbs has made a commitment to the Rutgers men’s basketball program like no one in his position before. Getting the Athletic Performance Center funded and built is one of of several new construction projects during this tenure that signaled real change. It has shown that the university is serious about competing, and more importantly winning, in every sport across the ultra competitive Big Ten.

In this excellent profile by Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports about the RAC becoming one of the best home court advantages across college basketball this season, Hobbs described how bad conditions were when he arrived in late 2015:

“Hobbs took over at Rutgers five years ago and recalled duct tape on the carpet in certain offices and no air conditioning anywhere in the arena. “I used to say to everyone, if OSHA came in here, they’d shut the place down,” Hobbs said.”

These type of issues don’t even exist at most smaller Division I programs, let alone a high major one in what is arguably in the best conference in collegiate athletics, the Big Ten. The article also details how as late as last season when men’s basketball still practiced at the RAC along with other sports and activities taking place there, Pikiell had major issues with scheduling practice:

“When Pikiell took over in 2016, he’d often face the sadistic choice of practicing his team at 8 a.m. after arriving home from a Big Ten road trip four hours earlier or letting them sleep in. The RAC was so crowded with teams and events that practice times, even for men’s basketball, were limited.

“Now, whatever time we get back, I say, ‘I’ll see you at 4 p.m.’” Pikiell said recently in his office, which includes an outdoor porch. “I don’t have to check with cheerleading, I don’t have to check with wrestling. For practical reasons, it has helped us tremendously.”

It’s absurd that this went on for as long as it did and the main reason is that for decades, previous administrations either didn’t care enough about basketball to give it what are really standard baseline requirements or didn’t have the ability to give the program what it desperately needed.

Less than a year after the dedicated practice facility opened and the team already tying the third most wins over the past two decades, as well as the first winning season in 14 years, Rutgers is gaining national attention across the sport. Multiple national sportswriters in the past month have waxed poetic about the dedication Rutgers has finally made towards basketball and how competency has finally led to relevancy. As much as fans desperately want to win, its just as important that the perception of the athletic department as a whole and basketball specifically changes for the better.

Despite growing frustration and concern about Rutgers going 2-6 against one of the toughest schedules in the country during that stretch after beginning 16-5 to start the season, extending Pikiell now makes a lot of sense for several reasons.

First, even if Rutgers fails to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 29 years and ultimately ends up in the NIT for the first time in 14 years, those around college basketball circles consider the job Steve Pikiell has done so far as a minor miracle. Rutgers went from a national laughingstock to a team no one in the Big Ten wants to play under his leadership.

How would it look if immediately after the most successful season in over a decade, the school squandered the best coach since Bob Wenzel roamed the sidelines in the 80’s and 90’s by letting a more traditionally successful power five program steal him away?

Why take that chance?

While the job is absolutely more desirable than when Pikiell was hired in 2016, it’s clear he is the coach that Hobbs believes in long term. The last basketball coach Hobbs hired and believed in was Kevin Willard at Seton Hall. He was also doubted by his own fan base for a long time, but currently has a top 15 team this season set to make his fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance after none in his first five years as coach.

Showing an intention to make Rutgers basketball a winner for a sustained period of time means investing in and protecting your assets. As beautiful as the APC is, I believe Steve Pikiell is the program’s most valued asset.

For recruiting purposes, showing this type of commitment to the program by ensuring the head coach will be in place as much as an athletic department can reasonably guarantee these days is hugely important. Fundraising needs to be a continual, forward moving process and donors need to be confident a coach they believe in will be in the fold to help deliver the vision they hope for before pledging their own money to the cause. Even to those who purchase season tickets year after year, or those considering it for next season for the first time, need to feel confident the program is stable enough to continue the trajectory Pikiell has it on.

Complaints and concerns that were a low murmur in early December after a 6-3 start to the season, then went away during a stretch that Rutgers went 10-2, have steadily grown to a noisy disruptance across the online Rutgers community. Panic and tension is building. Winning is like a drug, as fans can reach a euphoric state and the withdrawal has set in. It’s especially bad due to the fact that the program has had so little success over many years that the ride from mid-December to late January created a high not previously experienced by most Rutgers basketball fans. Only the old timers who saw the paint fall off the ceiling in the old Barn through the first days of the RAC into the early 80’s have known what it was truly like.

The season before Pikiell was the head coach at Rutgers, it finished the season with a KenPom ranking of 279 out of 353 teams, along with an offensive efficiency ranking of 303 and defensive efficiency ranking of 236. They had the worst KenPom ranking of any high major program for two straight seasons and along with other factors like a lack of facilities and previous administrative support, I’d argue Rutgers was the worst high major job of the past decade, possibly even longer.

Since Pikiell has led Rutgers, its KenPom ranking improved to 135 his first season, 130 his second season, 78 last season, and despite the recent losses, has the team at 31 with two regular season games remaining. The offensive efficiency ranking is 78 and the defensive efficiency ranking is 11.

Ken Pomeroy, the advanced stats god himself, wrote this week about 12 teams on the cusp of its best season in the modern era (beginning in 1984-1985) measured against it’s own success of lack there of during that time. He included Rutgers and even had Geo Baker as the lead photo. This is a team with a core of a freshman, four sophomores and two juniors returning next season.

If you can remember all the way back to late 2019, which may have been just a few months ago but may seem like a very long time ago to some, a common theme arose when Greg Schiano and Rutgers, most notably Hobbs and Greg Brown, were negotiating his return to the football program. The biggest question was whether Rutgers was serious about committing to winning in the Big Ten? Were they financially willing to invest in its head coach and program in order to build a winner and build something it’s alumni, fans and residents of New Jersey could be proud of again?

It wasn’t a smooth process by any stretch and doubt was certainly present, so much that the fan base rose in a show of support that had never happened at Rutgers before. To the credit of Hobbs, Brown and the BOG, they got it done. There was no alternative at that point if Rutgers wanted credibility as a power five athletic department moving forward, both nationally and within its own fan base.

While Pikiell’s now current seven-year deal at $20 million is a far cry from Schiano’s eight-year, $32 million dollar deal, as is typical of the two different sports, it signals another positive change in the long term vision and planning of the athletic department under Hobbs. The Big Ten is a conference that is strong nationally in most sports. New President Jonathan Holloway, who is taking over for Dr. Robert Barchi in May, came from Northwestern, where they recently built state-of-the-art facilities for both football and basketball. Hobbs has made many changes regarding coaching across the Olympic sports in the past few years, as well as improved facilities like never before. Investing in a long term vision across the athletic department is not something that has happened at this level at Rutgers previously.

Make no mistake, the men’s basketball program is not at the level that Steve Pikiell, Pat Hobbs or anyone who cares about Rutgers basketball wants it to ultimately be at. However, significant progress and improvement has been made since Pikiell took over the program four years ago. Securing his long term future is good business and brings stability to a team that has had four head coaches and played in three conferences over the past decade. By extending Pikiell now, Rutgers continues to prove being successful in big time athletics is something they are taking seriously.